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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.


Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Beverages, on June 10th, 2010.

I’m on a food quest – a mission, if you will. To find out how to make perfect Thai iced tea. It took me a couple of weeks of periodic research online (finding various recipes, with use of various kinds of milk, hearing about the different kinds of Thai tea to buy, visiting several Asian markets trying to find it) before I finally just went to my local Thai restaurant and asked them if they’d sell me their tea. Sure they would. For $7.00 for the bag you’ll see in the photo down below. The kind owner was trying to tell me how much of the tea mix to use, but I couldn’t understand him well enough to know what he was saying. How much tea to water? I couldn’t understand. The bag does have a recipe on it (in English!), but I think it would be way too strong. I don’t want to stay up all night with all the caffeine. So I resorted to just trying it, guessing on the quantity.If you don’t know about Thai iced tea, you’re really missing out. Well, that is, if you enjoy sweetened and milky iced tea. I didn’t know whether I’d like it or not, but my friend Norma (the one who died recently of pulmonary fibrosis) introduced me to it – she and her husband Mike lived in Asia for awhile and knew all about it. I was hooked as soon as I tasted it. But then, I like milky tea, and sweetened tea; not everyone does. My DH doesn’t like it at all. I served it to one of my daughters and she could hardly swallow it. So maybe it’s an acquired taste?

With the reading I did, I found out there are lots of qualities of Thai tea out there. The rusty brown color you see above is created by mixing the dark tea with some yellow food coloring (which is impregnated in the tea, I guess). Some of it may be from annatto seeds, which have a natural red/brown color to them. I’m not thrilled about ingesting all that much Yellow Food Dye #3, but I must if I want some of this tea. The tea itself is spicy – along the lines of Chai tea, but it contains different spices than Chai tea. Chai is from India. Obviously Thai tea is different! And according to many people who commented, if it’s Thai tea you want, the tea must come from Thailand because only they know how to make it. The package I bought from my local restaurant is from Thailand and it says it contains green tea, spices and yellow food dye. It also has Vietnamese words on it, so guess I’ll have to visit a Vietnamese store in our local community to find more, perhaps.

Having read about a dozen websites with information about making Thai iced tea, this is what I gleaned: (1) you must mix the tea, water and sugar, bring it to a boil, then let it sit for awhile. There were variations on how long it’s to sit. Some wanted a short time; others said much longer than traditional for English tea [which generally is 5 minutes]; (2) strain it to get out all the twigs and spices, then allow it to cool, and chill it; (3) pour it out over lots of ice, and using the bowl of a spoon close to the tea surface, pour in the milk – most sites said evaporated milk – other said sweetened condensed milk. I concluded using the sweetened milk would make the tea excessively sweet.

So I made some – using about 1/2 cup of the Thai tea mix in about 6 cups of water. If I had added the sugar then I’d probably have put in about 1/3 cup. I wanted to use Splenda and added it later. I brought the tea mixture to a boil, allowed it to sit and mellow for about 10 minutes, then strained it through a very fine mesh strainer (and even then I didn’t get out all of the very finely ground spices). Once it cooled, into the fridge it went to chill for awhile.

As you can see from the photo at left, the tea is strong – but interestingly enough – it’s not bitter like strongly made regular English type black tea – even after steeping for awhile.

After it was thoroughly cold, I poured it over a bunch of ice (this is when I added Splenda – that’s definitely not authentic). Very carefully I tried adding some fat-free half and half. Nope. Didn’t taste right at all. Then I tried evaporated milk and yes, that was it. From a little 6-ounce can of Carnation evaporated milk, I was able to make 2 tall glasses of tea.

If any of you know some secrets about making Thai iced tea, I’d be grateful for suggestions. I found a website called instructables. It had the best ideas, I thought. As with lots of recipes, this one is open to interpretation, adjustments, enhancements. And if you don’t want to go through all the hassle I did, most Thai restaurants have it as a beverage – just ask at your local Thai eatery if they have it on their menu (don’t get the ones with tapioca balls in it), and order a glass of it.

A year ago: Couscous Chicken Salad
Two years ago: Sarah’s Ginger Scones
Three years ago: Hot as Haiti (an adult rum drink)

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  1. Kathleen Heckathorn

    said on June 10th, 2010:

    Great article Carolyn. Have you tried asking them at Spice Thai restaurant how they make it? Theirs is really good. I’ll meet you there any time for lunch. (Maybe after I’m done with Jenny!) I also like the drinks with tapioca, but thought that was a Japanese drink.

    Let’s do meet there for lunch and we’ll find out! . . . thanks, Kathleen.

  2. Andrea

    said on February 18th, 2013:

    Hi there! I know this post is old, but in case you haven’t figured it out yet, the ingredient you are looking for is condensed milk! Using that instead of evaporated milk will give you the authentic taste you are looking for. Also, I think your blog is great! 🙂 Can’t wait to try some of your recipes.

    I know that many Thai ice tea versions do use sweetened condensed milk, but in this case I really didn’t want to use it – as it makes it full of sugar – I wanted to use Splenda or some other sugar substitute instead – so my only option was to use the evaporated milk. And many recipes call for it rather than the sweetened condensed stuff. The finished tea may be more authentic made the other way, though. Thanks for your suggestions, though. . . carolyn t

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